David Cameron plans to replace his controversial chief spin doctor, Andy Coulson, at the next election. The former News of the World editor, who has masterminded the Tory leader's slick communications strategy for the past two years, will not continue in his role even if the Mr Cameron gets to Downing Street, senior party insiders have revealed.
Mr Coulson's contract expires at the next election. It is understood he will leave at or shortly after polling day under a mutual arrangement. The move will leave the Tory leader searching for a similarly tough Alastair Campbell figure if, as expected, the Conservatives win power.
Mr Coulson, who is rumoured to be on a substantial six-figure salary, is admired by Mr Cameron and there is no suggestion that the two men have fallen out. Following his appointment in May 2007, Mr Coulson was responsible for bringing a tougher edge to the Tory leader's image, shifting emphasis away from promoting green policies and "hug a hoodie" messages towards a tougher stance on crime and Britain's "broken society".
One insider claimed Mr Coulson was planning to earn a fortune in PR as a "Matthew Freud of the right". But his planned departure is also convenient for Mr Cameron because of the difficulties that his presence in No 10 could pose. Mr Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World in 2007 after his royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was imprisoned for four months for intercepting mobile phone messages left for aides of senior royals. An insider pointed out the potential problems of a Prime Minister Cameron going for weekly audiences with the Queen if Mr Coulson remained as communications director.
When he resigned, Mr Coulson said Goodman's actions were wrong and that he "deeply regretted" that they had happened on his watch. But he refuses to deny being aware of the illegal activities of his reporter and Glenn Mulcaire, the security consultant also jailed for the interceptions.
Mr Coulson, 43, is said to have had professional disagreements with Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron's strategist, despite claims from both men that they work well together. Mr Hilton and George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, were both involved in recruiting Mr Coulson. Mr Hilton last year moved to California, while continuing his role from afar. However, the strategist is spending more time in Westminster in the run-up to the election.
A source close to Mr Coulson said he had indicated his intention to step down after the election. The source said: "There are rumours that he would go back to journalism but it's highly unlikely. It's much more likely that he will go into PR and set up his own firm. He would be the new Matthew Freud of the right."
But one senior Tory was more disdainful, saying: "I have always thought about Coulson that his game is laundering his reputation, filling his contacts book and going off and making as much money as he can."
A friend of Mr Coulson said that he has never made any secret of the fact that his contract with the Tories expires at the next election, but played down rumours of any grand plans for afterwards. "Andy is just focused on the election and hasn't got any plans beyond that."
Last night Mr Coulson declined to comment when asked whether he would work for Mr Cameron beyond the election.